We’ve spilled countless words over the wherefores, the whys, and the meanings of the IPA. Lamentations on its rise, its demise, its history, and more could fuel an everlasting fire to keep us warm through a long, discontented winter. But America’s long love affair with the IPA in all its evolutions continues unabated, and it’s been amazing to see new traditions born right before our pint glasses—new traditions, such as the triple IPA.
First, a little backstory: The American IPA is older than most present-day enthusiasts would imagine. The last standing example of an earlier tradition was Ballantine IPA, which survived not only Prohibition but also multiple ownership changes. This is a beer that would confound and comfort modern IPA drinkers: It was big (1.074 OG), it was bitter (about 60 IBUs), but it was also a darkish amber color, and it aged in oak barrels for a year. (For more about Ballantine IPA, see ]“Ballantine IPA Returns, Perfected by Homebrewing,” beerandbrewing.com.](https://beerandbrewing.com/ballantine-ipa-returns-perfected-by-homebrewing/)) As time went on and the owners kept trying to squeeze extra pennies from the brand, the aging time became shorter.
As Ballantine waned, other brewers picked up the torch—namely, Anchor (San Francisco) and Bert Grant with the launches of Liberty IPA and Bert Grant’s IPA in 1983. Both beers heavily featured a newfangled hype-hop named Cascade, which was first grown commercially in 1968 but took a while to catch on.
With the rise of the first craft bubble in the 1990s, more and more IPAs arrived as essentially bigger versions of ubiquitous pale ales. Going bigger is the American way, after all—and, as we’ll see, more biggering was yet to come.
When IPAs Doubled Down
Credit for introducing the double IPA famously goes to Vinnie Cilurzo, who first brewed one in 1994 at the Blind Pig brewpub in Temecula, California. The style really hit its stride in 2000 with the release of Russian River Pliny the Elder. Cilurzo first brewed Pliny for the Bistro IPA Festival in Hayward—an event that has had a massive impact on the development of West Coast IPA over the past 23 years.
In California, the Bistro’s festival created an incentive for brewers to get competitive and break out something special. As the double IPA style grew in popularity, the early East Coast/West Coast split—with the East more malty, the West crisper and more bitter—grew more distinct. East Coast double/imperial IPAs such as Dogfish Head 90 Minute or Smuttynose Big A had robust malt backbones, lending some credence to naysayers’ arguments that double IPA was “just another name for barleywine.”
The Bistro fest struck again when it added a Triple IPA category. Brewers responded, including Cilurzo with a beer that has maintained its hype ever since its first release in 2005: Pliny the Younger. Sixteen years later, its annual release is a circled date on the calendar, with long lines at the breweries and (during pandemics) crashed computer systems. For the record: Dogfish Head released its 120 Minute IPA a couple of years earlier, but that one’s always had some barleywine-ish leanings. Younger, on the other hand, was and still is bright, brash, dry, and bitter, with just a touch of balancing sweetness.
While the hype around hazies has gained steam in recent years, we tend to forget that Vermont’s The Alchemist brewed the original batches of Heady Topper—the ur-hazy double IPA—in 2004. Later iterations of juicy-hazies have pushed further into huge hop presence and softer bitterness—an interesting challenge for brewers of hazy triple IPA.
It’s been a long journey from Ballantine—from dark and tannic through layered caramel malts and on to bright, crisp, and pale, or soft and juicy, or various combinations thereof. Where once we tried to burn our palates with hop bitterness in the IBU wars, now it’s all about extracting more of those hop oils to smash even more aroma into our schnozzes. It’s been a long, hoppy road—but the journey continues.
Building and Brewing a Triple IPA
Just what the heck makes an IPA into a triple IPA? For practical reasons, it’s not just a matter of “more.”
Here is the problem we face as brewers: As we push the alcohol levels up, drinkers perceive more sweetness, and the hops lose efficiency of impact in terms of bitterness and aroma. So, how do we brew an IPA with its increased strength and increased hop presence without—to borrow a phrase from Jamil Zainasheff, founder of Heretic Brewing—“hopping like you’ve lost your mind”?
Simple: We don’t. In other words, we have to make a big damn beer that’s dry and screams hops, even while chemistry and biology are fighting us all the way.
We start with strength: Triple IPA original gravities are in the 1.100 range. The typical grist starts with 90-plus percent pale or pilsner malt. A touch of pale adjunct such as wheat or dextrin malt can help with foam, while—to take a cue from the Belgians—some sugar can kick up that ABV while helping to keep the body lean. For the hazy versions, we’d naturally expect some heavier adjuncts such as oats (flaked or malted) to help fluff up the mouthfeel and bring the haze. Some commercial brewers are also borrowing a trick from the short-lived brut IPA fad, using enzymes in the mash to drive greater attenuation.
In water, we see another split in our styles. Either way, you need to start with clean, dechlorinated water and ensure that you have proper acidification. To drive a dry and bitter West Coast bite, you’ll want to add a healthy dose of gypsum—at least 75 to 150 ppm. To go softer for a hazy, you want a higher chloride level—again in the 75 ppm range. Be careful about going too high on the chloride, lest you end up with a beer that tastes salty and feels heavy.
Now to the pivotal point: You’re going to need more hops than you think. With the higher gravities, you need increased hop loads to push aroma and flavor over the mass of malt and yeast notes—brewing such a big beer turns up all the dials.
To tackle this challenge, many brewers turn to better beering through chemistry, in the form of various concentrated hop products such as hop extracts and Cryo Hops. Russian River, for example, uses hop extract to drive the base bitterness without adding excessive plant material. The problem is twofold: Extra hop material absorbs liquid, reducing yield; it also adds more ancillary hop flavors and compounds, such as tannins, which distract from smooth bitterness and pleasant aroma. In the case of triple IPA, hop extract can be your dear friend.
While extract brings the bitterness, you’ll need a ton of hops for your aroma. In modern hopping protocols, we see bittering additions of extract and then no hops at all until the whirlpool. (For the hazy version, you can skip the bittering altogether.) I like using concentrated hop pellets such as Cryo Hops or LupoMax once I’ve dropped my whirlpool temperature to 170°F (77°C). Then I give them 20 to 30 minutes to swim and release all those hop oils. For a typical five-gallon (19-liter) batch, I recommend at least five ounces of concentrated hops for your whirlpool.
One last note: I’ve noticed that more brewers are pre-acidifying the whirlpooled wort, to adjust for a rise in pH induced by the dry hops to come. I first learned about this from Julian Shrago of Beachwood Brewing in Los Angeles, and since then I’ve heard more brewers talking about mild acidification to improve the flavor of heavily dry-hopped beers.
This should go without saying: You’re going to need a fair amount of healthy yeast to ferment your big damn beer. Make a starter batch. If you’re going West Coast, use a clean, neutral strain such as Chico or California Ale. For hazier versions, London III is a popular choice—or you can go hog wild and harness the power of kveik. This makes a lot of sense: Voss and other kveiks laugh at gravity and get along well with hops. With some strains, the orange-like or tropical esters can play right into the flavor profiles we’re trying to capture. (For more about these unusual yeasts, see Brewing with Kveik.)
Whatever yeast you choose, set the critters up for success by setting your temperature in their preferred range. Kveik like it hot, but otherwise lean on the cooler side to avoid any unpleasant fusel alcohols.
Dry hops require a heavy hand to drive their point home. However, as we’ve learned from research conducted by Thomas Shellhammer’s group at Oregon State University, the heaviest hand doesn’t win the game. You see diminishing returns after crossing the threshold of an ounce per gallon (8 grams per liter). After that, the additional hops can actually remove bitterness and oils from the finished beer.
The other recent shift is toward shorter dry-hopping times. In the earlier days of double and triple IPAs, it was standard practice to leave the dry hops in the beer for as long as 10 to 14 days. However, recent studies show that a shorter dry-hopping time—two to three days—pulls most of the hop oil into the beer while helping to avoid extracting tannins that lead to hop burn. Many professional brewers have moved to these shorter dry-hop cycles to promote cleaner hop character.
Brewers rouse their tanks to keep the dry hops circulating and extracting, rather than falling to the bottom and clumping together. They typically do this by either bubbling CO2 through the beer or physically pumping the tanks. At the homebrew level, you can be crazy and use a diaphragm pump to do the same—Cilurzo warns against this, saying you could shear the hop matter and end up with a lot of plant character. Or you can simply give your fermentor a gentle swirl.
In another change from early days, many brewers are also taking advantage of biotransformation reactions that occur when hops are in the presence of active yeast. This complex chemical process transforms hop compounds and oils into fruitier, more aromatic compounds. If you go this route, the first dry-hop charge typically goes in as fermentation starts to slow down, after two or three days. Often a second load of dry hops goes in, usually without removing the first charge, then the beer is racked off the hops a few days later.
Advice from the Pros
After talking to brewers about the challenges and best practices of making a great triple IPA—or a quadruple IPA, or even a quintuple IPA because MORE!—here are several reoccurring themes:
- Keep your fermentables simple: pale malt plus sugar, with little to no crystal malt—Zainasheff at Heretic recommends no more than 2 to 3 percent of your grist.
- Mitch Steele of New Realm Brewing in Atlanta—also the author of the book IPA from Brewers’ Publications—recommends mashing for two hours at 148°F (64°C) to ensure a highly fermentable wort.
- You want to drive this beer to dryness. Shawn Manriquez of California’s El Segundo Brewing—makers of the outrageously good Power Plant Triple IPA and Nuclear Power Plant Quadruple IPA—wants his beer to hit 2°P (1.008) to ensure that it’s dry, crisp, and capable of showcasing hop flavor.
- Likewise, you want to drive a clean fermentation to help your hops shine. Loads of healthy yeast and oxygen will help prevent a buildup of other “big beer” yeast characteristics that can distract from your hops. Manriquez names acetaldehyde (green apple) in particular as an off-flavor that can disguise hops. As you ramp up your alcohol, you ramp up the difficulty of getting a clean ferment. When Paul Sangster of Rip Current in San Marcos, California, brewed his Hop Wine Quadruple IPA, he lost sleep while stressing about that fermentation.
- Every brewer emphasizes the value of high-quality hops. Make sure your hops are in good condition—and if they’re not, don’t use them. Pivot to other hops or just brew a Belgian tripel instead.
- One last thing: Don’t age these beers! Drink ’em fresh. But you knew that already, right?